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At a crossroads over transgenics
Dante Elguera
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New decree eases restrictions of genetically-modified organisms, drawing criticism.

While Peruvians were focused on a contentious presidential run-off campaign, the administration of outgoing President Alan García slipped in a controversial legislation.

The Agriculture Ministry issued a decree that opens the door for genetically-modified foods and seeds to enter the country, if they are given permits.

The decree sparked alarm and disgust from farming and scientific groups, including the National Agro Convention, known as Conveagro, the Peruvian Medical Association, the Peruvian Engineers´ Association, the Peruvian Gastronomy Association and dozens of social movements and nongovernmental organizations.

Even Environment Minister Antonio Brack has distanced himself from his counterpart at the Agriculture Ministry, Rafael Quevedo, who is betting support from big agribusiness will support the decree.

“Having transgenics is not a question of life or death,” said Manuel Ruiz, a lawyer and member of the Peruvian Environmental Law Society. Many who oppose genetically-modified foods and seeds argue that the country lacks sufficient personnel to ensure biosafety to crops once these transgenics are introduced, in order to ensure that traditional crops are not contaminated. They also warn that this could create irreversible dependency on these crops.

Ilko Rogovich, another member of the legal society, said the decree, which is really a norm so a 12-year-old biosafety law can be enacted, will spur a cascade of requests to allow these organisms into the country.

Scant biosafety capacity
It´s not that genetically-modified foods and seeds have never been in the country. They can be found in supermarket aisles all over the country: soy milk, powdered beverages, oils. There are reports of transgenic corn seeds in some areas in the northern coast.

And the new law does not allow Peru to become a Petri dish for new genetically-modified products. It bars approval for any genetically-modified product that has been rejected in another country.

Peru´s 1999 law that aims to prevent risks stemming from biotechnology states this, but there are still many warnings over the country´s scant ability to supervise the industry.

According to Isabel Peña, a lawyer specializing in biosafety issues, Peru´s diverse agricultural resources, many of which first sprouted in the country, could be at risk if these crops are allowed to enter the farming system.

Santiago Pastor, an advisor in the Environment Ministry, has also distanced himself from the new decree.

“We don´t know if we have the infrastructure, the trained personnel, the equipment and the processes implemented to exercise the necessary regulation and control,” he said of the decree.

One example of this lack of control is a 2007 case reported by scientists at the National Agrarian University in La Molina of transgenic corn found in Barranca, 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Lima, which the government is only starting to investigate now.

Pastor added that there is also no baseline of Peruvian biodiversity on which to decide whether the material can enter the country.

Furthermore, according to Pastor, most transgenics on the market come from temperate, not tropical areas, which might mean even the heavy coats of pesticides may not even work to fend off insects in these areas.

Even though the Agriculture Ministry says the country does have the ability to enforce restrictions and monitor the use of genetically-modified food and seeds, the country´s regional governments have their own jurisdictions. So far, the regions of Ayacucho, Cajamarca, Cuzco, Huanuco, Lambayeque and San Martin have declared their areas free of transgenics. The Amazon region of Loreto and Lima, whose leaders marched against these goods on April 26, are expected to follow suit.

Seeking a moratorium
Some indigenous organizations are also calling for this norm to be scrapped. The Chirapaq-Center of Indigenous Cultures of Peru said that the decree ignores the rights of Peruvians to preserve ancestral and technological knowledge that have allowed for successful farming of a wide variety of staple crops, including corn, potatoes, yucca, cotton and quinoa. They are now seeking a moratorium on genetically-modified products. They are not alone. Even the Environment Ministry is seeking a 15-year ban on these items. Lawmakers could soon debate a moratorium.

For Ruiz, a moratorium would allow for a “serious, multi-sector evaluation with recognized professionals, to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of transgenics in specific contexts in certain parts of the country.”

Peru´s immense genetic wealth is at risk, at a time when organic farming is becoming more popular in the country, with products such as cocoa and coffee exports bringing in millions of dollars. President Alan García says it will be the next government that will debate whether genetically-modified seeds can enter the country.

Candidate Keiko Fujimori has proposed a three-year moratorium, which still keeps the door open for these products down the line, while the rival-movement of candidate Ollanta Humala has staunchly against them. What is certain is that the issue is vital for Peru´s future.
—Latinamerica Press.  


Genetically-modified organisms put traditional knowledge and farming at risk. (Photo: Chirapaq)
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